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Poland: Around 100,000 people attend public memorial for victims of plane crash

Sunday, April 18, 2010

A public memorial for the victims of the plane crash that occurred last Saturday where the Polish president, Lech Kaczyński along several members of the Polish government died, was attended by 100,000 citizens of the country in Pilsudski Square of Warsaw.

A gigantic white platform having a giant cross across the centre was constructed in the area which had photos of the victims, including Maria Kaczyński, the first lady of Poland and many high ranking Polish officials. The names of the deceased were read, beginning with the president and his wife, as their only daughter, Marta, and Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the twin brother of Lech Kaczyński and former prime minister of the country, looked on. Former President Lech Walesa, Prime Minister Donald Tusk, and interim president Bronislaw Komorowski were also present. The audience held Polish flags held together with black ribbons and observed a two minute silence before emergency sirens and church bells rang out.

"Our world went crashing down for the second time at the same place," acting President Komorowski said about the crash, which occurred near Russia's Katyn forest, where thousands of Polish soldiers were killed during the second World War. Prime Minister Tusk called the crash "the greatest tragedy in Poland since the war."

It marked the beginning of two days of ceremonies. A funeral Mass for the first couple will follow the memorial. The funeral will be held at St. John's Cathedral at 6 p.m. local time (16:00 GMT) in Warsaw.

The coffins of Lech and Maria Kaczynski were taken to the St. John's Cathedral for the evening Mass. They will be flown to Krakow Sunday morning for the state funeral, Presidential Palace spokesman Jacek Sasin stated.

"During those few days when the palace was open, some 180,000 people came through the palace" to pay their final respects, he said. Some of them waited for as much as 14 hours in the queue, he added. Teresa Winkler, 76, was one of the mourners who said that she came to pay respect to a President "who took care of the people forgotten by society," such as aging soldiers and activists.

"He was a real patriot and a real Pole," Winkler said. "I am afraid it will be hard to find another president like Kaczynski," she noted. Several other groups came to honor the first couple for their work for the nation.

A state funeral for the first couple is slated to be held on Sunday; however, some world leaders canceled their plans to attend it. The principal cause for this was that several European airports remained closed, owing to volcanic ash that hovered in different parts of the continent.

Swedish King Carl XVI Gustaf and Foreign Minister Carl Bildt and Finnish President Tarja Halonen canceled their plans to visit Warsaw for this reason. Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, King Juan Carlos I and Queen Sophia were also among those who canceled their trip. Heads of state of Egypt, Macedonia, India, Japan, South Korea, Mexico, New Zealand and Pakistan also canceled their plans to attend the service on Sunday.

American President Barack Obama, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and French President Nicolas Sarkozy were still expected to arrive. Czech President Vaclav Klaus had stated that he would come to Krakow via train and car, while the presidents of Slovakia and Slovenia said they would arrive by car.

South Korean Prime Minister Chung Un-chan also canceled his plans to attend the state funeral while Cardinal Angelo Sodano, dean of the College of Cardinals, was unable to travel from Rome to deliver a memorial Mass on Saturday.

The first couple, along with other Polish dignitaries, died when their plane went down in heavy fog after hitting the tops of trees on approach to Smolensk, Russia. They had been on their way to attend a memorial for thousands of Polish army officers who were killed in 1940 by the Soviet Union.


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